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Cayenne (Capsicum species)

This fiery spice, made from chillies, is said to have originated in cayenne, capital of French Guiana.  Ever since a physician sailing with Christopher Columbus first described these pungent fruits, their popularity as a painkiller, digestive aid – and food enhancer – has grown throughout the world.

What it is?

Made from the ground pods and seeds of hot red chillies, cayenne (or chilli) pepper is famous for the fiery taste it brings to Asian, Indian, Mexican, Cajun and other cuisines.  All chillies are species of the Capsicum genus and therefore related to the capsicums used in salads.  The main ingredient in cayenne – and what gives chillies their hotness – is capsaicin (pronounced cap-SAY-sin), an irritating, oily chemical that' also the major component of the capsicum sprays used as a defensive weapon by the police force.

What it does?

When applied to the skin, capsaicin is an effective pain killer.  It acts by depleting the amount of a component in nerve cells called substance P, which transmits pain impulses to the brain.  When ingested, cayenne is believed to aid digestion.

Major Benefits

Regular application to the skin of a cream or ointment containing capsaicin can be very effective for relieving the pain of arthritis.  It also helps ease lingering post-shingles (postherpetic) pain, as well as painful nerve damage from diabetes and from surgery (such as a mastectomy or an amputation).

Preliminary studies indicate that cayenne cream may have other beneficial uses.  It may reduce the itching of eczema (since the itching sensation follows the same nerve pathways as pain).  The cream has also shown promise in relieving the aches and pains of fibromyalgia and the coldness in the extremities caused by Raynaud's disease.

Additional Benefits

Fresh chillies, tinctures, teas, tablets and capsules are said to stimulate digestion and help relieve wind and ulcers by increasing blood circulation in the stomach and bowel and by promoting the secretion of digestive juices.  Liquid forms mixed with water can be used as a gargle to soothe a sore throat.  Special nasal preparations have been studies that may relieve congestion, fight colds and alleviate the piercing pain of cluster headaches (but try these only under a doctor's supervision).  Claims that cayenne may reduce heart disease risk (by lowering blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels) or help to prevent cancer (by providing vitamin C and other antioxidants) have not been substantiated.

Common Uses

Topical cream and ointment

  • Relieve arthritis pain.
  • Reduce nerve pain of shingles (post-herpetic neuralgia), diabetes, surgery or trigeminal neuralgia (tic douloureux).

Tablet, capsule and tincture

  • Alleviate indigestion.


  • Cream/ointment.
  • Tablet.
  • Capsule.
  • Soft gel.
  • Tincture/liquid.
  • Fresh or dried herb.


  • Never apply cayenne cream to raw or open skin.  And avoid your eyes and contact lenses: the burning can be intense.
  • Reminder:  If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.

How to take it?


For external use:  Cayenne cream or ointment containing 0.025 – 0.075% capsaicin is most effective with regular, daily use.  For pain, apply it thinly over the affected areas at least three or four times a day, rubbing it in well.  Pain may take several weeks to subside.
For internal use:  Follow the package instructions for tablets or capsules.

Guidelines for use:

For external use:  because sensitivity to cayenne varies, test it first on a small, particularly painful area.  If it works – which may take a week or more – and causes no lasting discomfort, you can apply it over a larger area.  To avoid getting cayenne in the eyes, wash your hands afterwards with warm, soapy water, or wear latex gloves during application and promptly discard them.  You can also cover the area with a loose bandage.  (If you're using capsaicin to relieve pain in the fingers or hands, wait 30 minutes before washing it off to allow the cream to penetrate the skin.  In the meantime, avoid touching contact lenses and sensitive areas, such as your eyes and nose.)  Store cayenne cream away from light and extreme heat or cold, and keep it out of the reach of children.
For internal use:  Cayenne can be taken with or without food.  No adverse effects have been reported in pregnant or breast-feeding women who use it internally or externally, but stop using cayenne if a breast-fed baby becomes irritable.

Possible side effects

Cayenne cream or ointment frequently promotes warmth or a mildly unpleasant burning sensation that last half an hour or so during the first few days of topical application, but this effect usually disappears after several days of regular use.

Cayenne can also cause intense pain and burning – though no lasting damage – if it gets into your eyes (or other moist mucous membranes).  If this occurs, flush the affected area with water or milk.  To remove cayenne from the skin, wash with warm water, soapy water.  Vinegar may also work, but don't use it in or near your eyes.

Facts and Tips

  • Cayenne can be used safely with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other arthritis medications.  Such a combination may allow you to cut back on your medication dosage, reducing the likelihood of side effects.  Check with your doctor before changing your dosage.
  • In Australia and New Zealand, chillies are rated on a scale of 1 to 10 (the hottest).  If you see a rating of 10+, beware!

Shopping Hints

  • Doctors frequently write prescriptions for cayenne (capsaicin) creams.  But many nonprescription cayenne creams of the same potencies (0.025-0.075%) are available in pharmacies and health-food shops.  An over-the-counter cream might save your money.
  • To keep your feet warm, some herbal cayenne products are made to be sprinkled into socks.  Although this remedy may be moderately effective, be careful when using such a product with young children, who could get cayenne in their eyes when they're changing their socks.

Did you know?

Fresh or dried, the chillies used to make cayenne contain about 1.5% capsaicin – the painkilling ingredient that also provides them with their legendary hotness.